Alan Turing: A Unique Human Being

Statue of Turing at Bletchley Park (click for full view)

In futures thinking as in life, often it’s important to look back in order to look ahead. This week marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Alan Turing, offering the perfect opportunity to do both.

Given the scope and scale of Turing’s achievements, it’s easy and natural to want to focus on his many accomplishments: the cryptanalyst who, with others at Bletchley Park, succeeded in cracking the seemingly unbreakable codes generated by the Nazi’s Enigma machine; the computer scientist, who along with John von Neumann, conceived the stored-program computer architecture, the model on which so much of modern computing is based; the originator of the Turing test, the first exploration of what might constitute machine intelligence and whether it could ever achieve parity with the human mind. And so much more.

With so many technical triumphs, it’s easy to overlook the fact that Turing had a private, personal life as well, just like any other man. In his case, he was a gay man living at a time when this was illegal in Great Britain. As a result, Turing was hounded, prosecuted, stripped of his security clearance and made to undergo estrogen hormone injections resulting in chemical castration. Plunging into a severe depression, Turing eventually took his own life at the age of 41. Even if he hadn’t been a national hero, this would be a terrible injustice. But in light of all Turing contributed to the world, it was tragic beyond measure. (Note: Turing’s contribution to the war effort wasn’t made public until the seventies, when this information was declassified.)

It’s difficult to grasp just how different that era was for gays and lesbians, even though it was less than sixty years ago. While full equality and rights still haven’t been completely attained, the western world has come a very long way from those dark days. Within another generation, it seems likely the battle will be behind us and people will wonder what all the fuss once was over sexual orientation. With any luck, this will apply to race, creed and color as well.

But that doesn’t mean equality for all will have been realized or that discrimination will have completely disappeared. As a species we have a very xenophobic streak; at a certain level we’re hard-wired to be wary of anyone we perceive as too different. Anyone we see as Other.

Given the rapid progress we can expect in a host of different fields, the world is about to get a lot stranger and it’s probably going to be filled with a lot more people who could potentially be viewed as Other. Transhumans. Posthumans. Cyborgs and human-machine symbiotes. Group minds. Digital uploaded minds. There’s every likelihood each of these groups will be forced to jump through the same hoops and fires every other discriminated group has, before eventually, hopefully, being recognized as having the same inalienable rights as all other human beings.

So on this centenary of Alan Turing’s birth, let us give a moment of thought to what kind of world we want to live in. Let’s strive to make it one in which we value every life and every mind for what it truly is: Unique.